Buddhist Bhutan Proposes ‘Anti-Conversion’ Law

Already suppressed Christians say bill is designed to control growth.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, July 21 (CDN) — Christians in this Himalayan nation who are still longing to openly practice their faith were disheartened this month when the government proposed the kind of “anti-conversion” law that other nations have used as a pretext for falsely accusing Christians of “coercion.”

The amendment bill would punish “proselytizing” that “uses coercion or other forms of inducement” – vaguely enough worded, Christians fear, that vigilantes could use it to jail them for following the commands of Christ to feed, clothe and otherwise care for the poor.

“Now, under section 463 [of the Penal Code of Bhutan], a defendant shall be guilty of the offense of proselytization if the defendant uses coercion or other forms of inducement to cause the conversion of a person from one religion or faith to another,” reported the government-run Kuensel newspaper on July 9.

“There was always a virtual anti-conversion law in place, but now it is on paper too,” said a senior pastor from Thimphu on condition of anonymity. “Seemingly it is aimed at controlling the growth of Christianity.”

Kuenlay Tshering, a member of Bhutan’s Parliament and the chairperson of its Legislative Council, told Compass that the new section is consonant with Article 7(4) of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, which states, “A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.”

He said that the National Council had proposed that offenses under the proposal be classified as misdemeanors, punishable by one to less than three years in prison.

Tshering said that the amendment bill “may be passed during the next session of Parliament, after the National Assembly deliberates on it in the winter session.”

Asked if he was aware that similar “anti-conversion” laws in neighboring India had been misused to harass Christians through vague terms of “inducement,” he said he was not.

Authorities usually act on complaints by local residents against Christian workers, so frivolous complaints can lead to their arrest, said another pastor who requested anonymity.

Of the 683,407 people in Bhutan, over 75 percent are Buddhist, mainly from the west and the east. Hindus, mostly ethnic Nepalese from southern Bhutan, are estimated to be around 22 percent of the population.

There are around 6,000 Christians, mostly ethnic Nepalese, but there is neither a church building nor a registered Christian institution. The Bible, however, has been translated into the national language, Dzongkha, as well as into Nepali.

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the government has not officially recognized the presence of Christians, whose practice of faith remains confined to their homes.

The Drukpa Kagyue school of Mahayana Buddhism is the state religion, with Hinduism dominant in the south, according to Bhutan’s official website, which adds, “Some residues of Bon, animism and shamanism still exist in some pockets of the country,” but makes no mention of Christianity.

Still, since Bhutan became a democracy in 2008 after its first-ever elections – following more than 100 years of absolute monarchy – people have increasingly exercised their freedom, including religious choice.


‘Why More Religions?’

Home and Culture Minister Lyonpo Minjur Dorji told Compass that Bhutan’s government had “no problems” with Christianity or any other faith.

“But Bhutan is a small country, with a little more than 600,000 people, and a majority of them are Buddhist,” Dorji said. “We have Hindus, also mainly in southern parts. So why do we need more religions?”

Buddhism is closely linked with political and social life in Bhutan. Dorji’s office sits in a gigantic monastery in Thimphu known as Tashichho Dzong. Buddhism unites and brings people together, Dorji said, explaining that the social life of a village revolves around its dzong (monastery).

Dorji said India’s multi-religious society had led to tensions and bloodshed.

“India can survive riots and unrest,” he said, “but Bhutan may not, because it is a small country between two giants [India and China].”

With leaders who have been proud that they have not allowed it to be colonized, Bhutan historically has been keenly concerned about its survival. Bhutan’s people see their distinct culture, rather than the military, as having protected the country’s sovereignty. And it is no coincidence that Dorji’s portfolio includes both internal security and preservation of culture.

The constitution, adopted in July 2008, also requires the state to protect Bhutan’s cultural heritage and declares that Buddhism is the spiritual heritage of Bhutan.

A government official who requested anonymity said that, as Tibet went to China and Sikkim became a state in India, “now which of the two countries will get Bhutan?”

This concern is prevalent among the Bhutanese, he added.

Sikkim, now a state in India’s northeast, was a Buddhist kingdom with indigenous Bhotia and Lepcha people groups as its subjects. But Hindus from Nepal migrated to Sikkim for work and gradually outnumbered the local Buddhists. In 1975, a referendum was held to decide if Sikkim, then India’s protectorate, should become an official state of the country. Since over 75 percent of the people in Sikkim were Nepalese – who knew that democracy would mean majority-rule – they voted for its incorporation
into India.

Bhutan and India’s other smaller neighbors saw it as brazen annexation. And it is believed that Sikkim’s “annexation” made Bhutan wary of the influence of India.

In the 1980s, Bhutan’s king began a one-nation-one-people campaign to protect its sovereignty and cultural integrity, which was discriminatory to the ethnic Nepalese, who protested. Their non-compliance, however, resulted in a harsh crackdown by authorities, leading to the expulsion or voluntary migration of over 100,000 ethnic Nepalese, many of whom were Christians, to the Nepal side of the border in Jhapa in the early 1990s.

“Bhutan did not want to become another Sikkim,” said a local resident, explaining why the government did not tolerate the protests.

Bhutan is also rigorous in implementing its laws related to the use of the national language, the national dress code and the uniform architectural standards throughout the country to strengthen its cultural integrity. Bhutanese men are required to wear the gho, a knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt, when they go to work or attend a public function. Women have to wear the kira, an ankle-length dress clipped at one shoulder and tied at the waist. Non-compliance can lead to fine
and imprisonment.


Brighter Future

One hopeful pastor said he expects the government to officially acknowledge the existence of Christianity in Bhutan in the near future.

“Religious freedom will be good for both Christians and the government,” he said. “If Christians are not officially acknowledged, who will the government go to if it wants to implement an executive decision related to religious communities?”

Explaining the reason for his hope, he recalled an incident in the Punakha area in January, when a house under construction was demolished after rumors that it was used as a church.

“The house owner, a Christian, went to his majesty [King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck] and told him he was not constructing a church but would have worship with other believers on Sundays,” the pastor said. “The king allowed him to build the house.”

He also said that a delegation of Christians met with Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley in May 2009, who reassured them that there would be more freedom soon.

Christianity is gradually growing, but through word-of-mouth – testimonies of those who have received healing from sickness – and not public preaching, he said, adding that Christians needed to understand and be patient with the government, “which cannot and should not make changes or give freedom overnight.”



Christians’ Skulls, Bones Used for Buddhist Ritual

The ambiguity in Bhutan over the status of Christians has brought with it a new difficulty: A national daily recently reported that at least eight graves of Christians had been exhumed and the skulls and thigh bones extracted for a Buddhist ritual.

Although the report marked the first time the practice had made the news, Christian leaders said more than 100 graves have been dug up as the trade in human bones has been going on for more than five years.

A local resident of the Lamperi area, near Thimphu, identified as Namgay, told the Bhutan Observer that he found eight graves in a “secret forest graveyard” that had been exhumed by hunters of craniums and thigh bone.

“We saw skulls without craniums and a hand sticking out of a grave,” he was quoted as saying in the daily on May 27.

A human skull garners between 5,000 ngultrum (US$105) and 10,000 ngultrum (US$211) in Bhutan, with men’s skulls considered more valuable. The skull of a man affected by leprosy is not considered ideal for purification. Rather, such skulls are considered best for rituals to subdue evil spirits.

In a visit to the graveyard, the Bhutan Observer found at least eight graves freshly dug up. “Hand gloves, khaddar [a coarse homespun cotton cloth], a currency note, a wooden cross, and a wooden hammer lay scattered all over,” it reported.

The daily said the graveyard apparently belonged to the Christian community in Thimphu and nearby areas.

“Christians in the country say that there should be an official recognition that there are Christians in the country, and other things like burial rights will naturally follow,” the report noted.

A local pastor told Compass that since Christians did not have a burial ground, they buried their dead in forests.

“More than 100 bodies have been dug up, even though we have changed several locations for burial,” he said. “I wonder how the traders in human bones discover these locations. Where do we go now?”

Some local residents reportedly believe that a Christian grave brings bad luck.

Damcho Wangchu, a resident of Thinleygang area, told the daily that the area surrounding the graveyard was holy. He attributed all misfortune in the area – including storms, the death of three students and of four others – to the Christian cemetery.

“We never experienced such misfortunes in our gewog [cluster of villages] before,” he said.

The daily explained that the tradition of use of human skulls and thigh bones in Buddhist rituals was as old as Tantric Buddhism itself. “Thoepai Dagpa is a generic name for the text that illustrates the use and study of quality of skulls,” it reported.

Tantric Buddhism, widespread in Bhutan, involves rituals as a substitute or alternative for the earlier abstract meditations.

An editorial in the same newspaper noted, “Our hunt for the criminal will probably lead us from the unplanned graveyard to the sacred altar.”

Report from Compass Direct News


Local Muslim leaders prompt officers to arrest, abuse evangelistic team.

DHAKA, Bangladesh, August 4 (Compass Direct News) – At the urging of local Muslim leaders, police in western Bangladesh have tortured a pastor and two other Christians for legally proclaiming Christ.

Habibur Rahman, 45, pastor of Boalia Spiritual Church (Boalia Ruhani Jamat) in Boalia in Cuadanga district, 220 kilometers (136 miles) west of Dhaka, said he was about to meet with 11 others for a monthly meeting on evangelism at 8 p.m. on June 8 when local police stormed in and seized him and Zahid Hassan, 25, and a 40-year-old Christian identified only as Fazlur.

The first question the police commander asked him, Rahman said, was, “Why did you become Christian?”

“Using a lot of filthy words, he charged me that I was teaching the Bible and converting people to Christianity in this area,” the pastor told Compass.

In May, a police patrol chief had threatened to seize him at a church meeting but was misinformed about the time it would take place, Rahman said.

The commander who seized him and the two others was a sub-inspector with the name Khaleque on his badge, Rahman said. Police dragged them to a nearby parked vehicle and transported them to Shamvunagar police camp.

“Police told us, ‘We will teach you in the camp how to forget your Christ,’ while dragging us to the vehicle,” said Rahman.

Police blindfolded them after reaching the camp and took them to three separate rooms.

“I heard blood-curdling scream from other rooms,” Rahman said. “I was sitting on the floor blindfolded. I could not understand what was happening around me. Later several police came to me and one of them kicked me on the back of my head, and my head ricocheted off the wall. They also kicked my waist.”

Ordering him to say how many people he had converted to Christianity in the Muslim-majority nation, the commander said he would kick him a like number of times. The official told him to call out to Jesus, saying he wanted to see how Jesus would save him, Rahman said.

“While beating us, police told us there will be no Christian in this area,” the pastor said. “Police hurt our hands, lips, thighs and faces with burning cigarettes. They beat me in the joints of my limbs with a wooden club. They beat us for one hour, and I became senseless at some point.”

Police officers told Rahman to admit that whatever he had done in his life was wrong, he said. When they sent them to Boalia police station early the next morning, dozens of Christians arrived to try to obtain their release.

Police, however, were reluctant to release the detained Christians.

“Some Christian villagers then said, ‘We are also criminal because we believe in Christ like Habibur Rahman and the other two Christians,’” Rahman said. “They told police, ‘If you do not release them, then arrest us and put us in jail.’”

Police did not release the three Christians until 9:30 that night.

The next day, June 10, thousands of Muslim villagers demonstrated in front of a local government office called the Zamzami Union Council chanting, “We want a Christian-free society,” and “We will not allow any Christians in Cuadanga.”

The frenzied mob called for Rahman to appear at the local government office, and a sub-district administrative chief called in 10 Christians and 10 Muslims including imams to try to resolve the matter. In that meeting, the administrative official told everyone to practice their religion freely without disturbing others.

“The administrative chief also said nobody should interfere in other religions, but even now we cannot attend our churches for worship,” Rahman said. “Local people said, ‘You will come in the church alive but return home dead.’”

Police Denial

Police denied carrying out any torture, saying they arrested the Christians for interrogation because villagers had informed officers that some underground Maoist terrorists had gathered in the house.

Jotish Biswas, executive director of Way of Life Trust, said the marks of torture were unmistakable.

“There were streaks of blood on their legs, hands and faces,” said Biswas, who interceded with police on behalf of the arrested Christians. “I have seen marks of cigarette burns on their bodies. They were beaten so severely that they could not walk properly.”

Biswas said he had learned that a local official and some Muslim clerics had prompted police to torture the Christians because they objected to their evangelistic activity.

“Police violated the rights of minorities enshrined in the Bangladeshi constitution,” Biswas said. “It was a gross violation of human rights.”

Chanchal Mehmud Kashem, a Christian journalist who visited the area, told Compass that the area is lacking in freedom of religion.

“Torture by police suggests that those Christians are not citizens of Bangladesh,” Kashem said. “It suggests they are illegal, alien and that evangelism is a crime.”

Kashem added that the notion that “underground terrorists” had gathered in a house was a pretext for harassing the Christians. “Rahman has been working as an evangelist in this area for one and half years,” he said.

There are 176 Christians in the area where Rahman works as an evangelist and pastor, he said.

“The local government council chairman told me two times not to come in this area,” Rahman said. “He said, ‘There is no Christian in this area, so why do you come here to make Christians?’”

Local Muslim villagers have since refused to give work to area Christians, most of whom are day laborers dependent on obtaining daily jobs to survive.

Report from Compass Direct News